Refusal to register a religious community: Bulgarian Orthodox Old Calendar Church

In 1968, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church decided to switch from the Julian Calendar to the Revised Julian Calendar. Some of the clergy and adherents disagreed, and there were also divergences over other doctrinal and canonical points. The ‘Old Calendarists’ disaffiliated from the Bulgarian Orthodox Church and ultimately established links with the Greek Old Calendarist Church, and by 1993 the breakaway movement had evolved into a distinct autocephalous Church [4 & 5]. When it applied to the Religious Denominations Directorate attached to the Council of Ministers, however, it did not receive a formal reply [6]. In consequence, because it did not have legal personality it could not itself erect or own places of worship or benefit from tax exemptions with regard to them. It was also unable to receive donations, formally to employ its clergy, or to run commercial activities related to its religious affairs, such as the sale of ritual objects and religious books [7].

In the case of Bulgarian Orthodox Old Calendar Church and Others v Bulgaria [2021] ECHR 340, the applicants alleged before the ECtHR that the refusal to register their Church had amounted to an unjustified interference with their right to freedom of religion, contrary to Article 9 ECHR. The Court considered that the complaint should be examined under Article 9 read with Article 11 [43].

The Bulgarian Government contended that there had been no interference with the Church’s autonomous functioning: it had been free to operate without hindrance, even though it did not have legal personality: in Bulgaria, unregistered religious communities were not prohibited from setting up places of worship, holding religious services in public, producing and distributing religious literature, or engaging in other activities of that sort [52]. Further, the applicant church’s name did not sufficiently differ from the name of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, which could lead to confusion and by law precluded its registration. It was a group that had seceded from the Bulgarian Orthodox Church – and that was further grounds for refusing to register it. There was no bar to the registration of Eastern Orthodox religious communities, so long as they were sufficiently distinct from the Bulgarian Orthodox Church and did not comprise people who had seceded from it. The refusal to register the applicant church had therefore been “prescribed by law” [53]. The applicant Church had not demonstrated that it had characteristics that distinguished it sufficiently from the Bulgarian Orthodox Church. Article 9 read with Article 11 could not be construed as requiring the registration of identical entities within the same religious denomination whose names were not clearly different. The refusal to register had therefore not been a disproportionate interference with the applicants’ rights to manifest their religion or freely to associate [54].

The Court concluded that, while the refusal to register had been “prescribed by law” [59], it was not “necessary in a democratic society” [64]. There had therefore been a breach of Article 9 read in light of Article 11.

]See also the similar case of Independent Orthodox Church and Zahariev v Bulgaria [2021] ECHR 342, which was examined simultaneously with Bulgarian Orthodox Old Calendar Church.]

Cite this article as: Frank Cranmer, "Refusal to register a religious community: Bulgarian Orthodox Old Calendar Church" in Law & Religion UK, 21 May 2021, https://lawandreligionuk.com/2021/05/21/refusal-to-register-a-religious-community-bulgarian-orthodox-old-calendar-church/

1 thought on “Refusal to register a religious community: Bulgarian Orthodox Old Calendar Church

  1. I suppose they were never registered since they always turned up 11 days late to court hearings…

    Quip aside: seems to be the right decision from the ECHR. Why a lex specialis for seceders from the Bulgarian Orthodox Church?

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